Despair enters Damascus

Syria has now entered this phase: Gradually, day after day, dragged into the inferno, »»

Syria has now entered this phase: Gradually, day after day, dragged into the inferno, simply because its bloody patronage has refused to “change” -- to use the famous phrase of Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the immortal novel “The Leopard” (Il Gattopardo) -- “in order for everything to stay the same.”

With the bombing in Damascus, the dagger has penetrated into the very heart of the Bashar al-Assad clan, revealing the truth: that no ruler in Damascus should from now on feel safe. The act of murder has been seen by Assad hopefuls as just another example of terrorism, but would of course be easily dismissed as the natural pattern of “what goes around comes around.”

The bloody response since last year to the persistent calls of the oppressed for a domestic dialogue for a new order based on equality and freedom, and to a reshaping taking place in the entire region -- all nations moving ahead with a dynamic force of their own -- has exposed what Baathists in Damascus stand for, and how ready they have become to be thrown into the garbage can of history.

Despite the fact that Assad now feels the cold breath of the end on the neck of his doomed regime, the phase before us may prove to be very tough and long-lasting. Even if some key members of the Baathists are killed, it is no cause for overconfidence. There are great uncertainties inherent in the days, months and years to come, with the potential for increasingly unpleasant elements of surprise inside the country, around the region and for the international community.

The world now knows how vulnerable the thuggish rule of the capital really is. This is a reminder of what happened in Tripoli. While the opposition -- however fractured and weak it has remained -- can claim a psychological victory, the bomb has clearly put the final stamp of illegitimacy on the regime. It sends a message to the members of the international community -- those who have shown concern for the loss of human life there -- that the final resolution of the conflict, “civil war,” must remain a domestic affair. It also tells the cynical, myopic members of the same community -- Russia, China, Iran and even Israel -- that standing on the wrong side of history will make them pay, sooner or later.

What will Assad’s circle do next? Despite the trauma to his regime, he still has choices. It is clear that he was some time ago crossed off the list of alternatives in any “power sharing”; that time has passed.

But he can fight to the very end, by staying in Damascus, extending the conflict with more massacres (with deliberate contagion of horror and violence to Christian urban communities), employing chemical weapons, or, a possibility that seems more and more likely now, creating an Alawite-led statelet in the western, coastal part of the country -- choosing the model of Republika Srpska, one of the two main entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- where his circle will hope to survive, protected by the army. (In fact, the recent military operation in Tremseh, an obvious act of ethnic cleansing, gave indications of a line having already been drawn between the western and eastern parts of the country, signaling partition.)

In such a case, we should contemplate the possibility of some sort of Russian protectorate. Assad’s regime has already lost control of more than 60 percent of the territory. Given the intensity and the spread of the conflict today, it seems unlikely that Assad will manage to take it back. An option may be to negotiate a deal with and through Russia to leave the country, in a scenario similar to that in Yemen. The bombing in Damascus must have brought Assad closer to that option.

Could it work? It remains to be seen whether Russia at the end of the day desires a Syria with or without Assad. This is, of course, directly linked to the possibility -- looking much more real today than yesterday -- of a palace coup liquidating the top echelons, those the opposition consider primarily responsible for the mayhem, paving the way for a lengthy, painful, but less bloody transition.

Russia may look self-assured, but it also knows that the end is near, unless it provides massive military assistance to Assad. This may be an option. However, while Russia may not emerge a loser, it will not necessarily emerge a winner either. Assistance for continued bloody repression of the Sunni majority at all costs may prove costly for Russia, which has suffered long enough from terrorism at home. It may therefore be inclined to negotiate more seriously with the West. The result of talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is therefore critically important.

The likelihood of a spillover of military confrontation across Syrian borders has also, it can be argued, increased dramatically. Given the fact that the regime has gradually fractured from within, Turkey is to remain on high alert, but the element of desperation in Damascus now makes it even clearer that Turkey should not intervene, rather making sure that opposition forces secure a buffer zone at the border, as far as Aleppo. Syria is best left in the hands of its own dynamics.